Budget 2013 Speech – MP Lee Li Lian

Lee Li Lian, MP for Punggol East SMC

By MP for Punggol East SMC, Lee Li Lian
[Delivered in Parliament on 6 March 2013]

“Distribute the role of caregiving, to build stronger and sustainable families”

Madam Speaker,

This year’s budget efforts to ensure stronger support for the lower-income groups and the elderly is a good step in the right direction towards creating a more inclusive society which looks into the needs of the less fortunate and less-able amongst us.

Today, families with dependents – those with young children, or those supporting disabled or elderly relatives, face many challenges that need to be addressed. With today’s costs of living, it is a necessity for both parents to work in order to support the family. At the same time, these families require someoneto be able to be at home, caring fordependents. Caregiving is a role that is often understated and goes unnoticed in society, yet it is a job that requires a huge amount of dedication and sacrifice, particularly when it comes to looking after the elderly and disabled. Sadly, despite being important pillar of strength for the family and playing a valuable role in society, they do not get sufficient support despite the manypersonal sacrifices and reduced income that itself can take a toll on the family.

Another struggle facing families today is that of having to balance long working hours with numerous family responsibilities. Parents have many responsibilities apart from work to contend with – looking after their children and being there during their most formative years, caring for elderly parents, and also having some much needed personal time. Unable to balance these responsibilities, parents have to turn to paid help which brings about additional costs. At present, parents are squeezed by both high costs of living which require them to both work, and long working hours. Parents often feel caught between stepping back from work and diminishing their career prospects, or neglecting their families while struggling in the rat race.

The lack of support for families when it comes to caregiving and work-like balance continues to put tremendous stress on the family. In order to provide more sustainable and holistic support to families who have dependents, I believe that the budget must better support caregivers, who in turn are pillars of support for the family, and institutionalise better work life balance. Caregiving is integral to the family. In addition to parents to young children, who are also considered caregivers, there were over 200, 000 caregivers looking after children with special needs, the disabled, seniors and the sickly in 2004. While there are currently no updated statistics available today, this number is projected to increase along with changing ageing demographics. Caregiving is a full-time job, and can be both emotionally and physically draining. On average, caregivers provide close to 7 hours of care per day. Just as caregivers are a pillar of support for their dependents, they too need support, relief and personal time to pursue their own interests and careers.

These caregivers are often family members, many of who stay at home or work part-time because they are unable to afford hired help, and have an obligation to care for their young kids, ageing parents, or a disabled child. We must look at more ways to ease the immense burden on caregivers and recognise their integral role within the family and in society too. We must remember that the

burden on a caregiver is inevitably a burden on the family. and I would like to identify several ways to better distribute the role of caregiving, to build stronger and sustainable families.

1. Waiving foreign domestic worker levy for certain groups of families

I welcome the budget’s initiative to reduce the Foreign Domestic Worker levy from $170 to $120. This will ease costs for many families in Singapore who currently hire domestic helpers.However, especially for families with young children, and those who are looking after the disabled or the elderly, having domestic help is a necessity. For such families it is not a matter of luxury but of pure need, and we should consider waiving the levy for them.

During my house visits in Punggol East SMC, I have seen many wheelchair-bound elderly folks at home being looked after by domestic helpers while their sons and daughters are at work. Later, these helpers pick up the children from school and tend to them as well. Many families have shared with me how despite the fact that they have hired domestic helpers to cope with the many responsibilities of running a family while both parents are working, they struggle with the costs.

Families today are saddled with so many expenses- housing, transport, education, childcare and medical. Many need helpers, but simply can’t afford it. The only option then is for a family member, typically the woman, to quit her jobs to become a caregiver.

According to a report in 2011, only 14% of caregivers currently receive support from domestic helpers. More affordable access to foreign domestic workers mean that more caregivers can get assistance and some respite from their responsibilities. This is also in the best interest of caregiver dependents as it reduces the risk of caregivers being burnt out.

Caregivers with assistance from domestic helpers can also consider remaining employed either on a part-time or full-time basis. It is reported that 43% of women who are economically inactive have cited care giving and family responsibilities as reasons. Greater access to assistance could help a portion of these women return back to work. This benefits not just the caregiver, who may want to seek personal fulfilment through work, his or her dependent, and also the economy.

2. Better access to training for caregivers

It is not easy to be a caregiver for the disabled, those with special needs or the elderly. Caregivers require specific skills and knowledge to help the caregiver feel empowered and be well-equipped to provide support to his or her dependents.

The Caregiver’s Training Grant, which is the only support scheme available to caregivers, currently offers an annual training grant of $200 per year to attend training programmes that CEL has pre-approved. However, caregiver courses can range from $50 – $1300 for disabled training. Elderly caregiver training courses range from $10 – $400. Subsidies should be accorded in proportion to the cost of the course, rather than a standard $200 grant which may often not be sufficient to help a family cover the costs, given they also have to cope with medical bills and special arrangements to accommodate a sick child or elderly person in the home.

3. Promoting work-life balance, introduce flexi-work arrangements

Singaporean workers have been known to work the longest hours. A survey in 2012 found that the Singaporean’s average working hours is 46 hours a week.

Work-life balance is important not just for couples considering having children or more children, but also those who currently have children, or who also support disabled family members or elderly parents. They too need to work, not just for income but self-fulfilment. Flexible work means that the responsibility of care is not placed unduly on one member of the family, but can be shared amongst working family members. There continues to be a perceived stigma about working mothers and caregivers, as well as concerns amongst employees that asking for flexible work may be seen as a negative sign by their bosses who might lose confidence in whether they will be able to do their jobs well. We need to support a shift in mindsets, which can be brought about if the government takes meaningful steps to institutionalise better flexible work practices.

Flexible work can support higher productivity

Despite Singaporeans working long hours, Singapore’s productivity is low and is a problem today. At the same time, companies in Singapore are among the slowest in the world to implement flexible work practices. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the long-held assumption that the longer one works, the more productive he or she would be.

There is plenty of research to show this over the years, and it is also telling that some of the most successful and sought-after companies today to work in like Google, Facebook and Hitachi, for example, are proud advocates of flexible work practices for their employees. Many studies, including the most recent one conducted by Stanford University and the University of Beijing showed that the availability of flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting and working from home resulted in higher job satisfaction, and greater productivity and efficiency.

Businesses today should not see flexi-work arrangements as an unwelcomed cost, but an investment in its own future in a changing society. Being able to adapt to a changing environment will ensure that businesses are more sustainable and able to adapt to changes, enhances workplace productivity, creates better gender equality, and helps companies retain talent.This was affirmed by a recent report released in 2012 by the Diversity Council of Australia. We should also continue to encourage businesses to play an active and positive role in the community. Singapore, our top priority given the declining fertility rates and the consequences that brings to the population should be to ensure Singapore becomes more conducive for raising families.

The need for an independent commission on work-life balance

I would like to reiterate my call for an independent commission to look into work-life balance practices for equal opportunities for women and a more family-friendly Singapore. Partners and membership should extend to government, key business leaders, employers, business associations, civil society groups, and regular Singaporeans in order to take an integrated approach to work-life balance solutions.

The setting up of this commission will signal a commitment to looking into the complex issue of work-life balance, taking into consideration the needs of not just businesses but the larger society. The objectives of this commission would be to lead public discussions on family friendly work practices,

develop research and promote global best practices to enhance work-life balance, and to develop pro-family business practice resources to help businesses shift towards a more pro-family environment. It is simply because the issues are complex that we should dedicate sufficient time and resources to look into solutions in-depth, for the long-term, and not go for the “one-size fits all approach”.

Conclusion

Madam Speaker, Raising a family in Singapore has become increasingly tough. The number one concern of families is how to manage the high cost of living. The accumulated costs are immense – from financing a house, buying a car to transport young children, paying for childcare, supporting the medical expenses, and a host of other bills. What more for families who are also taking care of disabled or elderly relatives?

Today we want to encourage younger Singaporeans to realise the joys of family, and to settle down and start families of their own. Yet what these young Singaporeans see today are high expenses and parents being stretched by unlimited demands at home and in the workplace. When the balance is tilted too far, raising a family can be seen as an opportunity cost rather than a joy.

Madam Speaker, families are the cornerstone of our society. All the more, we must take stronger efforts to relieve some of the burdens they face, and commit to refocusing policies to put families in mind first.

Thank you.